Honoring our Herbal Ancestors

At this time of year when the plants are dropping their leaves, dying back and decomposing into the Earth again, it is a time to honor death in the sacred cycle of life that it holds. Many cultures across the world speak of this time when the veils are thinning between our physical world and the spiritual world where our ancestors live.

This potent moment in the wheel of the year is often marked by ritual, ceremony and holy days to feed the spirits of our ancestors and honor the legacy they created which lives on through us. From my Celtic lineage, the holy day of Samhain (today celebrated as Halloween) was a sacred time to honor our ancestors, but to also listen to their guidance and wisdom at this time when we have the closest contact to them.

Though this is a potent time to commune with our own passed family members and ancestors within our lineage, today I also want to recognize our ancestors who are at the root of the work we do as herbalists.

Before there were herbalists, there were plants. The plants were here on this Earth far before humans and their wisdom is far beyond our own limited human understanding. They are the ones who know how to heal sickness, how to mend and restore health. They know how to nourish and feed life. They know how to adapt and evolve, and have witnessed the ages of life on Earth. Their brilliance and intelligence is vast and profound beyond comprehension.

In this way, they are our ancestors. And as herbalists, they should truly be our primary teachers. The plants are the healers, we are simply the ones with the feet and hands to carry their medicine to the people who need their help. This is the way I relate to the plants, and so this is how I wanted to honor them today as our first ancestors.

But I also want to acknowledge and honor the human ancestors who have created this legacy of herbalism we are a part of. By virtue of being an herbalist, we are part of a gigantic lineage of healers and medicine carriers whose work we are continuing on today.

Where do you think all of that information in your herb books came from? A lot of knowledge that was passed from generation to generation eventually became written down and is part of the knowledge base most herbal books today are derived from.

Plant medicine has been evolving throughout millions of years, with each generation adding onto the knowledge base they inherited from the previous generations. Though we continue to evolve the practice of herbalism with new discoveries in science and with revelations from communing with the plants themselves, it is important to recognize the deep history that is the root we are growing from as herbalists today.

It’s also important to remember the hardship and turmoil that the herbal healers before us have undergone and the sacrifices they have made to preserve and protect the knowledge of how to heal with plants. Many healers were hanged, burned at the stake, murdered, their traditions lost and knowledge stolen. It’s critical that we remember the sacrifice of the herbalists and healers before us and recognize the incredible privilege we have to study herbalism and have so much information accessible at our fingertips in this modern age.

When we broaden our perspective and look at the long arc of time, we remember that we are a small part of a large legacy. It’s our responsibility to take care of the knowledge that has been passed along to us and to do our best to preserve this knowledge so that it can continue on to benefit the next generations.

As herbalists, we are caretakers for this moment in history of the precious wisdom of how to heal people with plants. It’s an incredible blessing and calling to be part of a lineage of plant people and healers. It’s up to us to carry this wisdom with humility and great care, to share it and help those who come to us asking for help & healing.

Herbal Allies to Assist in Connecting with our Ancestors

Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)

Horsetail is one of the oldest plants on Earth, with a history of growing all the way back to prehistoric times. The Equisetum’s are known as a living fossils as they are the only living examples of the Equisetopsida class which originally formed the parts of the understory of the great Paleozoic forests. They lived roughly 540 million years ago when the first large reptiles roamed the earth – and grew up to 30 meters tall! 

As Horsetail has endured the ages and, as a result, holds a powerful memory of that time within its structure, Horsetail can help to slow us down and help us reflect on our own ancestral roots, bringing us closer to a more slower time and pace – a time once lived a long time ago. 

This description of Horsetail from Jessy Delleman of Fireweed Farms (one of the first Evolutionary Herbalism graduates) so perfectly describes the primal roots of this ancient plant:

“There is one plant still in the forest that, for me, embodies that energetic slowness: Horsetail. Horsetail is a remnant of a time before humans, a time before flowers and birds, a time when everything was much slower, more primal; the vibration of the earth resonating deep and low. Horsetails, along with their cousins the ferns, were some of the first plants to evolve on land after the mosses and liverworts. In the time of the dinosaurs, before the trees, horsetail forests were dominant on earth and species towered to over a hundred feet high. 

I often have the sense of time moving too fast in our modern world, and often that speed seems a product of the human mind rather something belonging to nature. Everything happens so fast these days, information is so easily exchanged as most of us are so plugged in to our phones and computers, available to this constant stream of input coming at us 24/7. But we are nature, and nature has sped up too.

Over billions of years of evolution we moved from the slowness of algae, mosses, ferns, and horsetails to the dynamic symbiosis of the conifers and the flowering plants communicating through scent, colour, and nectar; and the vast underground mycelial networks connecting, digesting, and recycling it all…

When I spend time with this ancient plant I have a sense of time slowing down, a sense a spaciousness opens up before me. Horsetail plants resonate with a slower vibration, and brings a sense of solidity to my life, teaching me about adaptability and endurance through time. A medicine for the spirit in these rapidly changing times.” 

Elder (Sambucus spp.)

Elder is a vastly wise plant. I believe it’s called Elder for a reason. It is a hallmark remedy for the herbalist to develop a relationship, as in my experience it’s a teacher of the ways of the forest, a master plant that teaches us what it means to be a person of the plants and an instrument for their healing.

I believe it was no mistake that this plant was the “sign” of the herbalist in European folk medicine, for it was not only associated with its nature as a panacea, but also because it is in a way, a sigil or mark of a true person of the plants. So on the one hand, I think this is an important plant for us as herbalists to have a relationship with, and on the other there’s also a deep medicine it has to offer for the people we serve.

The way I’ve come to understand this aspect of Elder, is that it’s a plant that helps to provide a level of wisdom in someone’s life. The way I use it is for people that seem to have a difficult time learning from their life experiences, that need a degree of guidance within themselves… in short, they need an elder.

One way I like to describe it, is that establishing a deep connection with this plant develops our internal “wisdom voice,” that part of ourself that knows best, that can look at our lives as if through the eyes of our future self as an elder, and from there move forward in a way that isn’t reactive from our past traumas but acting from a place of wisdom.

I’ve also used it for people that literally feel like they don’t have someone to look up to, good role models, or perhaps have lost their parents. This is actually one way that I found Elder truly helped me, as my father passed away when I was 16 years old. It was really quite profound how much it helped me not only process repressed grief but also to come to a connection with the spirit of my father and feel the protection and guidance of my ancestors. 

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